F1's Latest Rumours, Talk: Nico Hulkenberg to Renault, Sebastian Vettel, More

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistOctober 10, 2016

F1's Latest Rumours, Talk: Nico Hulkenberg to Renault, Sebastian Vettel, More

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    After flirting with several drivers over the course of this season, it seems Renault have finally found the one to lead them back to the summit of Formula One.

    Although they have had a season to forget in 2016, Renault—one of the few full-blown factory operations in F1—remain one of the most attractive teams on the grid.

    And after years of plodding around in the midfield for the likes of Williams, Sauber and Force India, Nico Hulkenberg is reportedly ready to take a chance on Team Enstone.

    While one German driver's future is set to be resolved, another's was plunged into doubt over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend.

    Maurizio Arrivabene's unflattering—but not exactly outrageous—pre-race comments about Sebastian Vettel have raised questions over the four-time world champion's commitment to Ferrari at the end of a difficult second season.

    In his efforts to recreate the success of Michael Schumacher, his boyhood idol, Vettel may end his career atop the Prancing Horse's saddle, but former F1 driver Martin Brundle has warned we should enjoy Vettel while we can.

    With major regulation changes on the horizon, Mercedes should enjoy their success while it lasts having secured their third constructors' world championship thanks to the points the team won in the Japanese GP.

    With third-placed Daniel Ricciardo 101 points adrift with just 100 left to play for over the final four races, Mercedes also secured a third successive drivers' title at Suzuka, although the identity of that driver is yet to be confirmed.

    However, non-executive chairman Niki Lauda has predicted Lewis Hamilton will not beat Nico Rosberg to the championship in 2016.

    Elsewhere, Max Verstappen has defended his controversial late-race move against Hamilton in Japan, and closing our post-Suzuka roundup is former Ferrari technical boss James Allison, who will not be rejoining Renault after becoming concerned by the team's lack of leadership.

    Something for Hulkenberg to think about before finalising his 2017 plans, perhaps?

Nico Hulkenberg Set to Sign for Renault for 2017 F1 Season

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    Hulkenberg is close to signing a deal to join Renault for the 2017 F1 season, it has emerged.

    As reported by Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, Renault have been among the most active teams on the driver market, with the likes of Stoffel Vandoorne, Carlos Sainz Jr., Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez all linked to the team at various points in 2016

    With most of their targets unavailable, however, Hulkenberg—widely regarded as one of the fastest drivers outside of a leading team—has emerged as the favourite to join Renault for next season.

    Having joined Force India at the beginning of 2014, the German is contracted to the team until the end of the 2017, but Noble noted "it is understood there has long been scope for him to get out of the deal."

    The same source noted discussions between Renault and Hulkenberg "are at a very advanced stage with an outline agreement having been put in place," but it is said a final contract has yet to be signed.

    Should Hulkenberg join Renault, it is almost certain he will be partnered by Mercedes protege Esteban Ocon, who spent the first half of 2016 on loan to Renault as a reserve driver before joining Manor after the summer break.

    Noble added Force India are likely to sign Pascal Wehrlein, who represented the team in a number of test sessions in 2015, to replace Hulkenberg following the Mercedes-backed youngster's impressive debut season with Manor.

    In a separate Motorsport.com article, Roberto Chinchero and Noble recently revealed Wehrlein had "asked his Manor bosses for more time" before finalising his 2017 plans in the hope of a vacancy appearing at Force India.

    The likely arrivals of Hulkenberg and Ocon is set to leave Renault's current drivers, Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer, facing uncertain futures having scored just eight points between them this season.

    With Haas recently delaying a decision on their 2017 driver lineup, it is possible Magnussen could replace the underperforming Esteban Gutierrez at the American outfit.

    In November 2015, team owner Gene Haas spoke of his admiration for Magnussen, telling the official F1 website how the team intended to sign the Dane for 2016 before luring Romain Grosjean from Renault, then competing under the name of Lotus.

    Sauber and Manor are also possibilities for Magnussen, although with both teams requiring drivers with financial backing, it is plausible Palmer could find an F1 lifeline with one of the two backmarkers.

Martin Brundle Fears Sebastian Vettel Will Walk Away from F1

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    Brundle has aired concerns that Vettel could walk away from F1 in the near future, suggesting the Ferrari driver has "lost his mojo."

    After winning four world championships with Red Bull between 2010 and '13, the four-time world champion is on course for a second winless season in three years having endured a troubled 2016 campaign.

    According to a print edition of F1 Racing magazine, Vettel and Ferrari have opened discussions regarding a two-year contract extension that would see the German remain with the team until the end of 2019.

    But team principal Arrivabene appeared to cast doubt over Vettel's future during the Japanese GP weekend, suggesting he needs to prove he deserves a new deal. 

    He told Sky Sports Italia (h/t F1 journalist James Allen):

    Sebastian now has a contract with us. We work together this year and again next year. Then during the next season we’ll see.

    Each of us has goals, I have them, the team has them, Sebastian has them, we all have them. So it is only right that anyone, no matter who it is, earns their place and their salary.

    [...]

    Sebastian just needs to focus on the car. He is a person who gives so much, and sometimes this means he is interested in a bit of everything—so sometimes you have to re-focus him, remind him to be focused on the main job.

    In 2014, Mark Webber—who partnered Vettel for five seasons at Red Bull—predicted his former team-mate will "retire early" after having a quick "blast" at Ferrari, per Motor Sport Magazine's Damien Smith.

    And Brundle fears the four-time world champion, who made his grand prix debut at the age of 19 in 2007, could soon retire from F1, telling Sky Sports:

    I'm beginning to think Sebastian Vettel won't be in Formula 1 for the long haul. He came so young, he broke so many records. I just watch him at work and he's lost his mojo.

    That was a choreographed interview, for a purpose, and the words were extremely strong there. I imagine Vettel will react to that very badly. I think what they are trying to tell him is, you drive the car and we'll sort the team out.

    Per the same source, Vettel said he has no issues with Arrivabene, describing how the pair "enjoy a very, very straightforward and honest relationship."

Niki Lauda Not Expecting Lewis Hamilton to Catch Nico Rosberg in Title Fight

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    Lauda believes Hamilton will be unable to beat Rosberg to the 2016 world championship if everything goes "normal" in the final four races.

    After claiming a pole-to-flag victory in the Japanese GP, Rosberg has a comfortable advantage in the drivers' standings, with Hamilton—who is without a win since July's German GP—33 points behind with 100 still available.

    Rosberg's victory at Suzuka means the German can afford to finish second to his Mercedes team-mate in each of the remaining grands prix and still win his first world championship.

    Lauda, Mercedes' non-executive chairman, fears it will be impossible for Hamilton to overhaul Rosberg's lead if the remaining four races go to plan for the team. 

    And the three-time world champion has suggested Rosberg could secure the title before the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP on November 27, telling Sky Deutschland (h/t Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde and Stefan Ehlen):

    Nico is doing everything right at the moment. If everything is going normal the championship could be decided in the next few races already.

    And if everything is going normal, Lewis won't be able to catch Nico anymore. This is perfectly clear to me.

    But it's only lost and won when the points are gathered. But if nothing happens to either car, I don't think Lewis will be able to turn it around again.

    Per Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said the title fight will continue until the end of the season, describing how Hamilton "functions best when he is under pressure and he has a target" to aim at.

    Hamilton told the post-race FIA press conference he will "give it everything" in his efforts to beat Rosberg to the championship.

Max Verstappen Defends Late Move Against Lewis Hamilton in Japanese GP

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    Verstappen has said he did nothing wrong during his late-race battle with Hamilton in the Japanese GP.

    On fresher hard-compound tyres, Hamilton rapidly caught the Red Bull driver in the latter stages of the Suzuka race before launching an ambitious move down the inside of the final chicane on the penultimate lap.

    At that point, second-placed Verstappen moved to cover the inside line, with Hamilton locking up, running wide and heading onto the tarmac run-off area.

    Verstappen's defensive tactics have been frequently criticised in 2016, but the teenager is adamant he fought fairly at Suzuka, telling Sky Sports F1 (h/t Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley):

    I'm not going to open the door and say, 'Here you go.' Of course, I saw him moving and as soon as I saw that I closed the door, and I think it was far enough to see that I was gonna close the door.

    We are struggling a bit on the straights, I think we're easily losing three tenths. I knew I always needed good exits out of Turn 14 and the last chicane, and luckily I managed to do that.

    Lewis was 1.5 seconds faster at one point, and as soon as he arrived behind me he got stuck. And I never had that kind of pace compared to Nico, so I don’t think I could do anything [about beating him].

    Per Sky Sports' Matt Morlidge, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner defended his driver, describing how Verstappen "was firm but fair" while racing against Hamilton.

    After the race, it emerged Mercedes had lodged a protest against Verstappen, but Hamilton revealed he persuaded the team to withdraw the complaint.

    Via his official Twitter account, he said: "There is no protest from myself. Just heard the team had but I told them it is not what we do. We are champions, we move on. End of!"

    However, Motorsport.com reported FIA race director Charlie Whiting and the race stewards held an informal discussion with Verstappen after the race in an effort to "clarify the situation," with the governing body reluctant to see moving under braking "become a common accepted practice."

No Renault Return for Former Ferrari Technical Boss James Allison

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    Allison will not be returning to Renault after leaving Ferrari earlier this season, it emerged over the Japanese GP weekend.

    After three years with the Prancing Horse, Allison left Ferrari ahead of July's German GP following a breakdown in relations with team principal Arrivabene and chairman Sergio Marchionne, as reported by BBC Sport's Andrew Benson.

    With Allison known to be searching for a return to the United Kingdom following the death of his wife in March, several British-based teams, including McLaren-Honda, Red Bull and Renault, have expressed an interest in signing the 48-year-old, per German publication Auto Motor und Sport (F1i.com's Julien Billiotte).

    According to Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Renault—determined to strengthen following their takeover of Lotus last December—initially approached him in June, but have been rejected by Allison.

    The source noted Allison is reluctant to join Team Enstone for a fourth spell and "has expressed concerns about Renault's apparent lack of leadership behind the scenes."

    Those "backroom complications" also saw Perez ultimately turn down a switch to Renault, despite having been keen to join the team at one stage, with the Mexican confirming a contract extension with Force India at the recent Malaysian GP.

    In August, managing director Cyril Abiteboul admitted Renault were finding it "more difficult than anticipated" to persuade potential signings to join the team.

    He told Autosport (h/t Eurosport) how Renault were struggling to convince staff of their ambitions and their chances of returning to the front of the grid.